What is Object Slicing in C++? [Answered]

Object slicing in C++: Answer #1:

“Slicing” is where you assign an object of a derived class to an instance of a base class, thereby losing part of the information – some of it is “sliced” away.

For example,

class A {
   int foo;
};

class B : public A {
   int bar;
};

So an object of type B has two data members, foo and bar.

Then if you were to write this:

B b;

A a = b;

Then the information in b about member bar is lost in a.

Object slicing in C++ and how to overcome object slicing in C++: Answer #2:

Most answers here fail to explain what the actual problem with slicing is. They only explain the benign cases of slicing, not the treacherous ones. Assume, like the other answers, that you’re dealing with two classes A and B, where B derives (publicly) from A.

In this situation, C++ lets you pass an instance of B to A‘s assignment operator (and also to the copy constructor). This works because an instance of B can be converted to a const A&, which is what assignment operators and copy-constructors expect their arguments to be.

The benign case

B b;
A a = b;

Nothing bad happens there – you asked for an instance of A which is a copy of B, and that’s exactly what you get. Sure, a won’t contain some of b‘s members, but how should it? It’s an A, after all, not a B, so it hasn’t even heard about these members, let alone would be able to store them.

The treacherous case

B b1;
B b2;
A& a_ref = b2;
a_ref = b1;
//b2 now contains a mixture of b1 and b2!

You might think that b2 will be a copy of b1 afterward. But, alas, it’s not! If you inspect it, you’ll discover that b2 is a Frankensteinian creature, made from some chunks of b1 (the chunks that B inherits from A), and some chunks of b2 (the chunks that only B contains). Ouch!

What happened? Well, C++ by default doesn’t treat assignment operators as virtual. Thus, the line a_ref = b1 will call the assignment operator of A, not that of B. This is because, for non-virtual functions, the declared (formally: static) type (which is A&) determines which function is called, as opposed to the actual (formally: dynamic) type (which would be B, since a_ref references an instance of B). Now, A‘s assignment operator obviously knows only about the members declared in A, so it will copy only those, leaving the members added in B unchanged.

A solution

Assigning only to parts of an object usually makes little sense, yet C++, unfortunately, provides no built-in way to forbid this. You can, however, roll your own. The first step is making the assignment operator virtual. This will guarantee that it’s always the actual type’s assignment operator which is called, not the declared type’s. The second step is to use dynamic_cast to verify that the assigned object has a compatible type. The third step is to do the actual assignment in a (protected!) member assign(), since B‘s assign() will probably want to use A‘s assign() to copy A‘s, members.

class A {
public:
  virtual A& operator= (const A& a) {
    assign(a);
    return *this;
  }

protected:
  void assign(const A& a) {
    // copy members of A from a to this
  }
};

class B : public A {
public:
  virtual B& operator= (const A& a) {
    if (const B* b = dynamic_cast<const B*>(&a))
      assign(*b);
    else
      throw bad_assignment();
    return *this;
  }

protected:
  void assign(const B& b) {
    A::assign(b); // Let A's assign() copy members of A from b to this
    // copy members of B from b to this
  }
};

Note that, for pure convenience, B‘s operator= covariantly overrides the return type, since it knows that it’s returning an instance of B.

Object slicing in C++: Answer #3:

If You have a base class A and a derived class B, then You can do the following.

void wantAnA(A myA)
{
   // work with myA
}

B derived;
// work with the object "derived"
wantAnA(derived);

Now the method wantAnA needs a copy of derived. However, the object derived cannot be copied completely, as the class B could invent additional member variables which are not in its base class A.

Therefore, to call wantAnA, the compiler will “slice off” all additional members of the derived class. The result might be an object you did not want to create, because

  • it may be incomplete,
  • it behaves like an A-object (all special behaviour of the class B is lost).

Object slicing in C++: Answer #4:

These are all good answers. I would just like to add an execution example when passing objects by value vs by reference:

#include <iostream>

using namespace std;

// Base class
class A {
public:
    A() {}
    A(const A& a) {
        cout << "'A' copy constructor" << endl;
    }
    virtual void run() const { cout << "I am an 'A'" << endl; }
};

// Derived class
class B: public A {
public:
    B():A() {}
    B(const B& a):A(a) {
        cout << "'B' copy constructor" << endl;
    }
    virtual void run() const { cout << "I am a 'B'" << endl; }
};

void g(const A & a) {
    a.run();
}

void h(const A a) {
    a.run();
}

int main() {
    cout << "Call by reference" << endl;
    g(B());
    cout << endl << "Call by copy" << endl;
    h(B());
}

The output is:

Call by reference
I am a 'B'

Call by copy
'A' copy constructor
I am an 'A'

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